Faced with shelves of books I might want to read, I usually peruse the cover flap to see if the storyline engages me. Any book that features, for example, women or children being harmed automatically disqualifies itself. Then I read the first page. If I have time, I read a random page from somewhere in the middle. I’ve read enough novels by now that I really only need a few paragraphs to know if I might enjoy one or not.
In the case of Anthony Marra’s 2022 novel, Mercury Pictures Presents, all I needed was the final sentences of the first paragraph:
And this was where the real Maria stood late one morning in 1941, hands holstered on her hips, watching a pigeon autograph the windshield of her boss’s new convertible. She’d like to buy that bird a drink.
The phrasing alone would have been enough for me. Any author who thinks of a woman’s hands holstered on her hips has a stunning way with words. And who wouldn’t be curious about a woman who wants to buy a bird a drink in that, or any, circumstance? If you need any further convincing, the title of this opening chapter of a book about Hollywood is “Sunny Siberia.”
Marra just writes that way, page after page of witty and unexpected juxtapositions describing equally complex and trenchant events. My favorite quotation is only a sub-clause: “. . . a marriage of convenience between the self-serving and the easily fooled . . .”. You could be forgiven for assuming that the writer is referring to whichever group you most despise in current American politics, but he’s actually describing the isolationist America First movement that agitated to keep the United States out of World War II right up until Pearl Harbor.
The action takes place in Los Angeles during the war, with long detours back in time to Mussolini’s Italy and the tragedies inherent in fascism that follow the characters across the ocean to California. Everyone involved with the Mercury Pictures studio is a refugee from European politics in one way or another. The only native-born American is a man of Chinese ancestry, and he faces so much discrimination in the motion picture industry and so much hostility on the streets of Los Angeles that he becomes an internal refugee from American politics.
Marra’s novel is a tale of exile and immigration and how America treats its immigrants. It’s also a family saga featuring the sort of devious rivalry between brothers that would make Shakespeare proud. And a female Iago (but not who you think).
The truly engrossing element of Mercury Pictures Presents, however, is not the gripping plot or the exquisite writing. It’s how the entire story reverberates back and forth with the reader in 2023, illuminating each era in the echoes of the other. This is that rare historical novel that consumes the reader with adventures while offering her a way to articulate the flaws and limitations of her own times.
Megan Koreman lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. She is a historian and author of The Expectation of Justice: France, 1944-1946 and The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe. A young adult novel, Dark Clouds over Paris, is forthcoming. Read more at dutchparisblog.com.